The pundits in Washington say that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on his way out. On the day of his departure many of his enemies will undoubtedly rejoice. But few European diplomats will be among them.
Tillerson has just landed in Europe, where he will hold meetings in Brussels, Vienna and Paris. In all of these places, he will be received with the customary friendliness and attention. Why?
To Europeans, Tillerson’s policies generally sound reasonable and balanced. He doesn’t tweet out anti-Muslim screeds. He sees a need for diplomacy in handling the North Korean situation. He speaks highly of NATO and the mutual defense commitments that it entails. He has taken a tough position on Russia’s violations of the European security order through its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. He has even been known to mention — although more in passing — democracy, human rights and common values.
But that’s not all.
He speaks of the nuclear deal with Iran in terms that would never pass the lips of the ultimate disrupter in the White House. He doesn’t denounce the Paris climate agreement, preferring to remain silent on the issue. And in a recent policy speech at the Wilson Center he wisely stayed away from lecturing the Europeans on the horrors of free trade and the “carnage” his president believes it brings.
The Europeans will certainly be aware that Tillerson has been undermined by the rumors, and they will undoubtedly wonder whether he still has the ear of the president.
And despite their respect, they will also note the elements of Trumpism that continue to figure in his statements. In his Wilson Center speech, Tillerson stressed that the United States wants its allies in Europe to be “strong, sovereign, prosperous and committed to the defense of shared Western ideals.”
Sovereign? Yes, certainly. But what he failed to recognize is that the European nations have found that sovereignty of the individual nation states is often little more than an illusion and that it is only by sharing sovereignty that one can really master the challenges of the future.
In his speech, Tillerson seemed to keep the European Union at arm’s length. All he was prepared to say is that the United States is “committed to working with Europe’s institutional arms,” of which they are many. The E.U. was mentioned in passing.
But this is to ignore the reality of what is happening in Europe. Step by step, summit by summit, the nations of Europe are coming closer and closer together. The painful process of Brexit is almost daily demonstrating how woven together our economies and societies have already become, and the pain and problems associated with trying to disentangle all that has been achieved is obvious. It’s not only about building a single market, extending it to the digital domain and having an outward looking global trade policy.
By dismantling borders and barriers, E.U. integration has contributed to ending the violent conflict in Northern Ireland. The gradual process of European integration is playing a similar role in helping the Balkan nations to overcome the animosities and conflicts of their past. If you are indifferent to borders coming up again in Ireland, or start to speak too loudly about “sovereignty” in the Balkans, you risk reversing process toward true peace. And the process of sharing sovereignty includes foreign and defense policies.
The steps might not be immediately revolutionary, but the E.U. nations are, in fact, starting to pool and coordinate their defense efforts. Over time this process will increase the “bang” they will get for their security “buck.” If Washington seeks to cooperate only, or primarily, with a couple of capitals it considers “sovereign,” it cannot help but undermine this process.
These processes of sharing sovereignty are profoundly in the interest of Europe, of the United States and indeed of global stability. And for all the goodwill Tillerson earns for not retweeting the tweets of the day from the Oval Office, it is disturbing that Tillerson does not — or isn’t allowed to — recognize and acknowledge this.
His policy speech undoubtedly got high marks in Europe for its robust approach to current security challenges, from Russian invasions to the fight against terrorism. But if Tillerson truly believes that these can be handled only by “sovereign” nations, he is misreading not only the facts but also the mood in Europe. The deceptive euphoria of the Brexit vote, and the belief that a populist wave would demolish Brussels institutions, are behind us by now. Now Europeans are continuing to move forward with the sharing of sovereignty.
I hope Rex Tillerson will find this out when he visits. And that he will try to get the White House to understand.
Carl Bildt is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden.